Part 1: The Black Gate - Let's Play Ultima VII - Part 1: The Black Gate!
I Lived Under A Rock or Was 4 in 1992, What is This?
Only (together with its compantion, Part 2: Serpent Isle; henceforth I'm using Ultima VII to refer to this game and Serpent Isle to refer to Part 2) the greatest PC-RPG of all time. Really.
Released in 1992, Ultima VII is the continuation of the Avatar series that began in Ultima IV. Ultima VII once again returned the player to the land of Britannia, the (rather consistent) setting of the main Ultima series. As each iteration of Ultima had improved the vibrancy, scale, and interactivity of the world, so too did Ultima VII. In fact, it may be one of the most interactive games ever made. Nearly every little detail in Britannia is somehow within the player's control. You can move chairs, stack boxes and climb on them, light and extinguish lamps, smash glass display cases, rob banks, fish, hunt, and yes, bake bread.
But that's just part of the reason the game is awesome. Combine with the memorable Ultima cast, a wisecracking villain, great gameplay and a sublime interface, and more handcrafted secrets than you can shake a stick at, a full two games' worth of continuous plot, and meticulously baking bread in a video game suddenly reaches a whole new level. This game kicks off a new trilogy, I think the Age of the Guardian or whatever the hell they call it, although the Guardian is about the only thing consistent between VII, VIII, and IX. Where previous Ultima games were about morality, the rule of law, and racism respectively, Ultima VII is about dangerous cults and the evils of Electronic Arts.
I'm not kidding. I'll tell a lot of jokes in this thread, but that isn't one of them. Ultima VII was released in mid-1992, shortly before Electronic Arts acquired Origin Systems later that year. The game is littered with little cracks at EA, which the developers clearly believed would eventually step in and stifle their creativity and just generally mess with everything.
Regrettably, that's exactly what happened. That Serpent Isle turned out so good is nothing short of a miracle. And then came Ultima VIII: Pagan and Ultima IX: Ascension, and I think we all know how well that turned out.
But we're taking a step back into glorious mid-1992 where Ultima is still the best RPG on the planet, Richard Garriott isn't crazy, and Origin is gloriously independent. So let's try to enjoy it.
I Really Want To Play This; How Do I Get/Run It?
Ultima IV is the only Ultima that is freeware, to my knowledge. Ultima VII is difficult to find today, but you can usually find a "complete" U7 (with Serpent Isle and both expansions) somewhere. EA may also still sell The Ultima Collection, which features Ultima I through VIII.
Running it is a slightly different issue. The game came out back in 1992 when weird XMS and EMS and bizarre soundcard shit was pretty standard; in general, making it run on a contemporary computer could be a pain in the ass. I have fond memories of boot disking my 486 into a particular DOS mode for this game, only to have it lock up anytime there was a scripted earthquake.
DosBox runs the game competently in its original form, but lucky for me and for everyone else, this game was just too popular to languish. Exult, an open-source freeware emulator, allows modern computers in just about every OS to run Ultima VII and Serpent Isle in a 99% faithful translation with bonus features besides, like Serpent Isle's better hotkeys and paperdolls and the ability to have an Avatar of a different ethnicity in Black Gate, which is important since your only original options were Blondie McAryan and Helga the Valkyrie.
So, get yourself a copy of Ultima VII somehow, and directly transfer ULTIMA7 and SERPENT somewhere off the CD to a hard drive (don't use the installers, they haven't worked since Windows 95). Then get Exult, install it, and point it to the directories. Quick and painless!
Well, we ought to get started, oughtn't we?
"I told you, Warren, for the last damn time, stop calling me!"
"Know that Britannia has entered into a new age of enlightenment. Know that the time has finally come for the one true Lord of Britannia to take his place at the head of his people!"
"Oh God, the computer is talking to me again."
"Under my guidance, Britannia will flourish, and all the people shall rejoice and pay homage to their new... Guardian."
"That's... nice I guess? You seem like a pretty decent talking face in a computer. Best of luck."
"Know that you too shall kneel before me, Avatar. You too shall soon acknowledge my authority. For I shall be your companion... your provider... and your master! Hahahahahah!"
"I'm suddenly struck by the realization that it is now, as they used to say back on Mars, 'on.'"
The Avatar always was the master of the obvious.
The glowing stone shines upon your desk...
Behind your house is the circle of stones.
"You know, last time I stepped into one of those things gargoyles tried to kill me. It would be a very prudent idea to go back to my house, pick up some of the weapons I left there at the end of Ultima V, grab my Orb of the Moons, lock my door, and come back here."
"Which is why I won't do it. Wheeeeee!"
We'll go into the interface and gameworld next. The story will start up soon enough.